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Little Sally Hurst is sent by her mother to live with her father Alex and his girlfriend at the large period house he is restoring. Sally feels unloved and is left to her own devices. That it until she reveals an undiscovered basement sealed for more than a hundred years. It appears to have been used as a study and studio by the original owner/builder of the house, Emerson Blackwood, a renowned nature illustrator who mysteriously disappeared. Sally is drawn to the basement, particularly when she hears movement and whispering coming from behind the heavy grate of the ash pit. The room holds many secrets. What she first considers might be some new friends turns out to be a nightmare beyond imagining...
For anyone who may not not know, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was a TV movie made by ABC in 1973. Normally I’m not a great advocate of film remakes; they are invariably inferior to the original, and in recent years seem to throw special effects at the screen in an effort to create contemporary interest in what is usually a yawn-fest. My logic questions why an unusual or classic movie should need to undergo a modern make-over, and the only explanation I’ve discovered is that some people won’t watch old films, in the same way that certain individuals refuse to view subtitled foreign language films, and in doing so miss out on some amazing examples. How short-sighted. However, whenever Mexican maestro Guillermo De Toro’s name is mentioned I tend to sit up and take notice; you’d be a fool not to as this is the creative director behind Mimic, Hellboy I & II, The Devil’s Backbone, Cronos, and the excellent Pan’s Labyrinth. As with The Orphanage though, this time he’s taken the producer’s chair.
Del Toro admits to watching and being frightened by the original as a child. He has been eager to launch this project but has taken since the mid-nineties to arrange all the planets into alignment. One problem was making the creatures convincing, and another was finding a suitable director, which makes me wonder why he didn’t just direct himself. However, you can easily gauge that he’s had a hand in the writing, as the script is taut, edgy and exciting. I have to say that Bailee Madison plays the little girl Sally with convincing introvertness and trepidation tinged with a natural childlike curiosity. The plot, as you would expect in this case, hinges on her performance, and I’m happy to report she doesn’t let the side down. Guy Pearce is a little stilted, accidentally giving credence to the fact that he and his daughter have a tenuous relationship. Katie Holmes (of Batman Begins) plays the isolated girlfriend with understated complexity.
Many of the mid-film scenes appear to rotate like Groundhog Day, but I suppose it’s an acceptable way of building the suspense surrounding the basement and the ash pit. The creatures waste no time in violently dispatching the old caretaker, but seem to take their time with Sally, at first tempting her before becoming more forceful in their attempts to take her. There’s much to appreciate here. This one’s a little different and, as you would expect now from Del Toro, a little off-kilter.
I’m somewhat disappointed with the extras, consisting of only four extremely short featurettes and a couple of trailers. What we are seriously bereft of here is a commentary with producer Del Toro and director Troy Nixey, and a making of... documentary that lasts longer than it takes to boil an egg.